Aside from the fact that she doesn’t sing, the only trepidation I’ve encountered about Bette Midler’s sensational one-woman show I’ll Eat You Last, about the sassy, splashy, tart-tongued Hollywood super-agent Sue Mengers, is the concern that the Divine Miss M might be playing a colorful “insider” so obscure that the general public has never heard of her. Well, the show is such a smash (and the Divine Miss M has never been more divine) that you’ll be lucky if you can beg, borrow or steal a ticket to get in.
This is exactly as it should be—because the avalanche of laughs at the Booth Theatre after every punch line and the raucous nightly standing ovations at the end of this 90-minute celebration (without intermission) of the life and career of a very close personal friend of mine for 40 years are richly deserved. At first, I worried that Bette could never look like Sue. But with her oversized tortoiseshell glasses and long platinum Mae West wig continually parted by two perfectly manicured, talon-like, fire-engine-red index fingers, sipping Veuve Clicquot, chain-smoking her endless supply of trademark joints and lounging barefoot in a blue sparkly caftan on the lush sofa of a sumptuous house in Bel Air designed by the brilliant Scott Pask, Miss M is haunting the corner of West 45th Street and Shubert Alley with the ghostly gusto of a Ziegfeld Girl humming “I’m Still Here.”
The set is a house once owned by Zsa Zsa Gabor where Sue used to give her star-studded A-list dinners in a former cabaret room called the Moulin Rouge. If I had a dollar for every night I spent there with Hollywood royalty too famous to mention, I’d be a rich man today. This is the place where sneezing on the cocaine bowl gave Woody Allen one of his funniest scenes. Written with one ear to the keyhole by John Logan (Red) and directed with campy delight by Joe Mantello, the aerie for rare birds above Sunset and the outrageous power player who ruled the roost there have been deliciously exhumed with a pre-show warning: “This play contains profanity, smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use and gossip.” Not necessarily in that order, but before it ends, you get it all. You also get everything you need to know about Sue Mengers. Or everything she’d want to tell you.
When the evening begins, Sue is puffing away for the purpose of chemically induced relaxation in preparation for one of her soirees. The regulars will probably be there—Roman Polanski and his latest squeeze, Jack Nicholson with then-roommate Anjelica Huston, the premarital Warren Beatty, you get the picture—along with assorted moguls, directors, producers, clients and movers and shakers from MGM to San Quentin. Every guest has to be famous. (“Honey, my own mother couldn’t get in here if she was standing outside in the rain!”) But this is the night Sue’s biggest client, Barbra Streisand, whom she represented from back in the day when her name had three A’s instead of two, has just fired her. In the famous baby voice with which I heard her announce “Sue’s depressed” a million times, she starts to confide in her audience. Sipping a vodka for extra support, she stretches out barefoot on the expensive upholstery (“Exercise does not play an important part in my life”) and lets it rip. “We chat. We dish. Who’s on top. Who’s on bottom. Who’s on the top who wants to be on the bottom.” And, I assume, vice versa. You learn a lot—like about what happened when Ali MacGraw left Bob Evans for Steve McQueen. I was there once when she was having a big donnybrook with him on the phone. “I’m an Irish mick and I don’t forget!” he yelled. Always fast on the uptake, she yelled back “I’m a Jewish princess, and I don’t give a shit!” and slammed down the receiver. That’s my Sue.
In 90 minutes that pass like New York nanoseconds, she dispenses party rules: “Number One: God forbid anyone should talk about Attica, Kent State or Cambodia. Nobody goes to Cambodia on vacation. Number Two: No children allowed. Just drive by and let them wave.” A Jewish escapee from Hitler’s Germany who arrived unable to speak one word of English, she completely invented herself. She taught herself to talk American by watching Joan Crawford and Bette Davis movies on TV (“That’s why I still talk like a goddamn Warner Brothers second lead”). She found humor in everything. After her father killed himself in a Times Square hotel room (“which seems redundant”) she moved from Utica to the Bronx, got a job as a receptionist at the William Morris agency, lifted the Rolodex from Tom Korman’s office and went into business for herself, stealing other people’s clients. You learn how she went to the public library every day on her lunch hour and read enough Shakespeare, Ibsen and Odets to impress Julie Harris, spent a miserable day on Sissy Spacek’s farm in a mythical country called Virginia (“Sue don’t do Jeeps”) and lied her way into landing Faye Dunaway the lead in Chinatown, beating the big boys at their own game in a man’s profession. And you learn how it all fell apart after she talked Streisand into doing a humongous flop called All Night Long directed by her own husband, Jean-Claude Tramont and subsequently lost her biggest clients in the face of public humiliation. At one point, she invites an unsuspecting member of the audience onstage, makes him open a fresh bottle, then says, “I’d like to ask you to stay … but look at you!”
The evening adds to little more than a glossary of hilarious witticisms. She was not a writer, but everyone she met was “material.” It’s cleverly distilled into what I call The Best of Sue Mengers, full-frontal. What I’ll Eat You Last fails to do is successfully excavate Sue’s full emotional depth, explore her voluminous capacity for loyalty and support, or show you what she was capable of if she was truly your friend. You don’t get a candle to her very hidden human heart, but Bette Midler does everything there is to do with the material at hand—and then some. It’s one of the most consummate evenings you will spend on Broadway this year. And nobody would enjoy it more than Sue herself.
I’LL EAT YOU LAST
Starring Bette Midler
Written By John Logan
Directed by Joe Mantello
222 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036